The Colorful History of the Rainbow Flag

The Colorful History of the Rainbow Flag

By Jen Woo
On the heels of a landmark Supreme Court decision, we trace how the rainbow flag has symbolized LGBTQ pride for over 40 years.

Almost exactly five years after the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed same-sex marriages, another historic ruling has ensured that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender workers can’t be fired for their sexual preference or gender identity. The major win comes during Pride Month—and while the pandemic has quieted the usual parades, rainbow flags are still waving high. 

The multihued banner has become an international symbol of LGBTQ pride, and it has undergone many iterations and variations since it was created 42 years ago. In honor of Pride Month, we look back at the colorful, often surprising history of the rainbow flag.

Gilbert Baker at San Francisco City Hall.

The rainbow flag was created by San Francisco–based queer artist Gilbert Baker in 1978. He’d moved to the city after an honorable discharge from the military to pursue a design career. In the mid-’70s he met Harvey Milk, who recognized his adept sewing skills and the strong political messaging behind his work. Baker began making political banners for the frequent protest marches Milk organized in San Francisco—and he was commissioned to create the rainbow flag for just $1,000.

Baker sewing the nine-color diversity flag.

"In 1977, Harvey asked Gilbert to come up with a new symbol for the LGBTQ movement to replace the pink and black triangles—symbols of oppression that had been put on us by the Nazis," explains Charles Beal, one of Baker's longtime friends and the creative projects manager at the Gilbert Baker Estate.

Although popular myth suggests the flag is a reference to the song "Over the Rainbow" in The Wizard of Oz, Beal says that Baker actually had the Stonewall riots in mind when he designed the flag.

Baker and volunteers raise the original flag in 1978.

"[He] states clearly that when he conceived of the rainbow flag he was overwhelmed with emotion and joy that the trans youth and drag queens who had fought back at Stonewall would finally have a flag of their own," divulges Beal. Since then, the flag has gone through several renditions.

Preparing the original flag to be raised in 1978.

"When Gilbert made the original rainbow flag in San Francisco for the 1978 Gay Parade, it had eight colors," says Beal. "Each of those colors represented a universal meaning." According to the Gilbert Baker Estate, pink stood for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit. 

The most widely-known version, however, is the six-stripe pride flag, established in 1979 with the following colors: red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, blue for harmony, and purple for spirit.

Baker in Ireland in 2014.

According to Beal, the rainbow flag was such a success that Baker was asked to create 400 banners for the 1979 Gay Parade. Baker turned to the Paramount Flag Company for help, although the company could not mass-produce two of the colors (turquoise and pink), as those fabrics were not commonly available. As a result, the flag was limited to six colors—although it changed again over the next two years.

Hot pink was determined to be too costly to reproduce, and turquoise and indigo were swapped out in favor of royal blue when the organizers of San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade decided to halve the flag so that it would fly across the street with equal stripes on both sides.

Baker sewing a mile-long flag.

As new technology became available, Baker was able to revisit his original design. In 2003, on the 25th anniversary of the rainbow flag, he revived the pink and turquoise stripes and set a world record by creating a mile-and-a-quarter-long rainbow flag in Key West, Florida.

The massive flag was captured in the 2004 documentary, Rainbow Pride. Afterwards, the flag was cut into sections and distributed to more than 100 cities around the world. The eight-color design held up until a month before Baker passed; in reaction to the 2016 election, he developed a nine-color rainbow flag with a lavender stripe for diversity.

A rainbow flag going up 1st Ave.

Over the years, an array of variations have appeared. In the mid-’80s, famed Vietnam war veteran Leonard Matlovich defied military policy and came out while trying to serve openly. He asked Baker to add a black stripe to the flag for AIDS. "That idea was that the black stripe would not be removed until AIDS had been cured," explains Beal.

Baker sewing a giant flag for the miniseries When We Rise.

"In 2016, I traveled with Gilbert to the White House where he gave President Obama a hand-dyed, hand-sewn eight-color rainbow flag," says Beal. "We were proud and thrilled that Monica Helms was there to give the President the trans flag, and Robin Ochs was there to give Obama the bi flag. Baker loved that artists everywhere were creating flags to use in their fight for recognition, visibility, and liberation."

In 2017, immediately after Baker passed away, a young group of people of color were kicked out of a gay bar in Philadelphia. The city rallied around them, and artists added a black and a brown stripe to the flag to represent social justice.

The Gilbert Baker Awards in 2012.

"Although none of these other flags have had the wide acceptance of Gilbert's original creation, he loved and encouraged people to make variations of the flag," says Beal. "He conceived of the rainbow flag as a living, breathing work of art that anybody could use as an expression of visibility and liberation. That was what was most important to him. And that is why he never sought a copyright or trademark. He gave it away to the world."

Baker's memoir has just been released this month. 

This month marks the release of Baker's memoir, Rainbow Warrior, which chronicles his life—from a repressive childhood in 1950s Kansas, to a harrowing stint in the US Army, to his arrival in San Francisco, where he flourished as a visual artist and social justice activist.

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